"Harmless Freedom":
Blasphemy and Toleration
in 17th Century England.

Lecturer: Professor Justin Champion, of Royal Holloway University of London and President of The Historical Association. 14th April 2016 at the Danish Lutheran Church in Hull.

Five Unitarians attended along with members of The Historical Association and visitors from Hull and District Theological Society. On the screen to begin was an image of the book, Socinianism in Seventeenth Century England authored by H. John McLachlan. I said to my Unitarian neighbour alongside, "He's one of ours." We were told by Justin Champion that this source is still unmatched historical research on Socinian ideas, theology and the networks of printing. This was the lecturer's primary source.

In the late 1620s in Poland a certain Samuel Przpkowski (Pricovius) claimed that toleration is a "harmless freedom" that carries no harm to any institution, including God. We all should be free to form our own opinions. God is happy with sincere opinions even if they turn out to be erroneous.

Into the 1600s, from Transylvania up through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there was a zone of toleration, a precursor to the West today, into which Socinian ideas took root. Socinus was an Italian heretic and anti-trinitarian who regarded the Trinity as mysterious and incomprehensible. Not a rationalist, he nevertheless promoted reason and reasonableness of belief.

Socinus's works were mediated via Przpkowski. They are the origin of John Locke's far more restrictive views on toleration. Ideas had travelled, but the restoration of Catholic power in 1660 forced heretical Poles to leave within a fortnight or face death. The North Sea was as much a bridge as a barrier. So the ideas travelled with the Polish Brethren including into the Netherlands and came into a network of heretics and printers there and in England. The sociology of knowledge is important here: the rise of new ideas associated with technological change and the impact on authority.

Despite the whole point being "harmless freedom", the English State regarded these networks as seditious and treasonable.

The background in England was the collapse of the State Church in 1640, the rise of both intolerant Presbyterians in parliament and a large number of sects, and the rule of the Independent somewhat eschatologically confused Oliver Cromwell, later as Lord Protector. The Restoration of the Church of England took place in 1660, forcing uniformity as a standard.

Two key heretical individuals in England were John Bidle and John Knowles, friends from the 1640s. They defended anti-trinitarian accounts and lay enquiry; they refuted the hegemony of clergy regarding religious knowledge. [Bidle translated the biography of S. Przpkowski: Life of Socinus (1653).] They were questioned and imprisoned, and Bidle died in prison in 1662. Knowles had his rooms searched in 1664; he spent 5 weeks in Worcester Gatehouse and was moved to Westminster gatehouse. Knowles was actually positive about the Restoration: he was faithful to His Majesty and just wanted to be left alone! He survived the plague in prison. The authorities wanted to crack apparently coded letters, and asked who were the Polish Brethren. The Restoration Magistrates simply got it wrong - there were no plotters.

Knowles was the epicentre of these like-minded people. He raised money for the Polish refugees - he was in touch with Polish Brethen by 1662 - and others saw the finance as a cloak for conspiracy. Another group communicating into England were the Dutch Remonstrants.

Key documents being printed included the Racovian Catechism entitled the Catechesis Ecclesiarum. Many of these had false imprints, such as "Printed in Amsterdam for Brother John". This fooled no one. A key individual here was Richard Moone. Whilst printing anonymously, he put his Man in the Moone insignia on all his output. He promoted his books as a brand. He even catalogued them. He was constantly attracted to anti-trinitarian material. As a printer he was interrogated by the State regarding his customers like Knowles, and he refused to answer. One tactic was to print texts and scatter them in the streets for free reading. Moone was part of a cottage industry of radical printers and booksellers. He was an apprenticed printer, a Freeman of the Stationers' Company.

In the questions section, Justin Champion said that the "Whiggish Myth" had given a far too positive spin for Presbyterian Puritans. They wanted liberty only for themselves. They were vile towards women. Someone said Rhode Island in America was the result of people seeking freedom from Presbyterians. Presbyterian rule was like having a Pope in every town instead of one in Rome. At the time of the disruption of religious life in England, some 800,000 people died of conflict and violence. The lecturer noted that when James II prposed toleration for Catholics and all manner of Protestants, the elite organised a coup and removed him.

Was Parliament's charge against blasphemy a screen for fears of treason or sincere belief? [Presbyterians thought that Socinians should face the death penalty; Cromwell effectively blocked this.] Both were true, said the lecturer. The Queen song has the lyric: One faith, one vision, one world, one religion, and it was a demand for order. Hobbes and Rousseau both argued that there cannot be two heads to an eagle in an effective State: a Church must defeat rival claims. Hobbes was quite materialistic when it came to religion, seeking evidence; he thought religion started with Chaldean astrologers and astronomers in Ethiopia, who ended up being slaughtered, and had a few thousand Presbyterians been killed it might have saved hundreds of thousands more.

Interesting lecture when you think that so many Unitarian chapels were started by Presbyterian Puritans; that these leaders were violently opposed to the Socinian ideas that were to come into their chapels late in the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Socinians were 'live and let live' and the Presbyterians definitely were not.

I gave Justin Champion a copy of the Hull Unitarian Magazine (Spring 2016).

Rev. Andrew Hill has since pointed out that the East Riding had a Socinian heretic called Paul Best, whose family lived and farmed at Elmswell Old Hall, Garton-on-the-Wolds. He also points out (as Justin Champion told me) that the lecturer gave a similar Friends of Dr. Williams's Library 2015 lecture: Harmless Freedom: John Biddle, John Knowles and the Reception of Polish Socinian Defences of Toleration, c.1650-1665. Copies of the lecture are available for purchase from the Dr. Williams' Library.

See The Historical Association


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful